When hatred of culture becomes itself a part of culture, the life of the mind loses all meaning.
—Alain Finkielkraut, The Undoing of Thought
Contingent morality is ethics at best. Ethics depend on the person, on the time, on the situation, perhaps; but ethics can change, adapt, revise. Morality cannot change. Cut off my head if I'm wrong, but I state clearly that morals are absolute, universal, and unchangeable. Do not mistake me then for a moral person, only as one who has some grasp of the language we use. Simple linear informal logic shows that morality cannot change. We can argue about morality itself but not about its unchangeablity.
That which changes is opinion, not truth. Facts do not change, they're simply replaced. Truth, if it is true then is true of then, but it is not false later: If it's true that it is now raining, and it is true that it is not raining later, it remains true that it was raining then. But morality doesn't change with the weather. If it was moral then, it is moral now or it wasn't moral then at all. We can argue what is and is not moral. We can argue whether there is morality. We cannot logically and coherently argue that there is a changing morality. To do that is to be what I am pleased to call "stupid." I argue here that we in the West are in the course of history that is at heart a time of moral stupidity. Ours is a time of pseudo-morality, a time of stupid ethics, a course of idiot ethical incoherence. Morality is laid aside, and we are in the grip of ethical opinion rather than a time of morality. I'm a rightwing religious bigot, worse than bin Laden, as one of our commentators wrote recently. My points are opinion, not morality itself. I might not even rise to ethical behaviour here. So sue me. Or better yet, sue someone who has some money and status.
Below we have more inquiry into the affair of Alain Finkielkraut. This is a matter of public opinion. In the West we have struck a pose of ethics rather than morality, and that ethical pose requires that we, as a general culture, (debatable as that might be to many,) lay in a Procrustean Bed to be chopped and stretched till we fit the ruling ethos of our time, changing daily as it does. Contingent ethics, as we'll see below, shifgt with the currents of opinion, and lately Finkielkraut is caught out, now made to suffer till he is made to fit the conformity of today's ethical pose. There is no moral argument at stake here for thsoe who would destroy the man, only the demand that he conform to the right pose. That is the opinion of publicity. Tomorrow he may be lauded as a revolutionary thinker. Not today. But that could change if the winds of publicity change the nature of the pose required. This is, according to us here, a false ethics, one not wothy of concern except when it threatens our very lives, as it unfortunately does today. When we abandon morality in favor of publicity and opinion we abandon all right to protection of the universality of the moral. We give up and die. We become less than cowards, we become morally stupid, culturally insane, and dead-- physically.
Below we see an aggressive act of contingent public opinion committed against a man who might well be moral. Today's pseudo-ethic is directed against a man who speaks morality.
Alain Finkielkraut is in trouble with the Left dhimmi fascists we go on about here on a daily basis. Finkielkraut spoke to interviewers in French that was translated into Hebrew for Haaretz, and from there his words were retranslated into French for French journalists to spread across French newspapers, Le Monde, for example. One might expect that the result would cause Finkielkraut some trouble. Finkielkraut himself claims that he doesn't recognize the character protrayed in the French papers. We would call that doing a hachet job on him. Finkielkraut said in the interview that people should take responsibility for their own lives and the actions thereof. Big sin in the socialist nighmare of the nanny state where personal responsibility is not allowed, where the state is responsible for personal lives, not the individual. And, being Jewish, Finkielkraut is also to be hated for claiming rightly that the rioters are Muslims who hate France as a culture. Below we get a glimpse of that trouble as reported in a New York City paper:
Mr. Finkielkraut then chose to defend himself in two more interviews, one to Radio Europe and one to Le Monde, in which he accused the November 23 article of selectively distorting his views. As he put it to Le Monde:
"The person portrayed by the [Le Monde] article would cause me to feel disdain and even disgust for him ....To my stupefaction, however, ever since [the article's publication] there are now two of us with the same name."
Although Mr. Finkielkraut did not recant his opinions - on the contrary, he made it clear that he stood behind what he had said in Haaretz - these remarks were taken by MRAP as an apology and the threatened lawsuit was dropped. At which point, Haaretz decided to get back into the act. On November 27, it ran a front-page article with the headline, "After Threats, The Philosopher Finkielkraut Apologizes." There followed a news story explaining that, faced with a lawsuit and vociferous criticism, Mr. Finkielkraut had expressed "disdain and disgust," not for Le Monde's distortion of his views, but for those views themselves. The clear - and false - implication was that he had buckled ignominiously under pressure.[....]Both newspapers, each generally considered the best in its country, illustrate a truth that anyone who has frequent dealings with journalists and the media knows well: They are often not to be trusted - not only to get the facts straight, but even to want to.
[l']affaire Finkielkraut is a sad illustration of how the culture of political correctness, as stultifying as it is in the United States, is even more so in Europe and especially in France. Whether or not one agrees with Mr. Finkielkraut's analysis of the French riots, they are racist only if it is racism to look the facts in the face. As a French friend of mine, who knows the immigrant suburbs of Paris well, put it in a conversation with me: "I could never get away with publicly saying this in France, but it can't be an accident that the rioters were all Arabs and African Muslims. There are plenty of other poor immigrant groups in France, including many African Christians, but none of them were out there torching schools and their neighbors' cars."
The interview below follows that from Haaretz. Here Finkielkraut tries to be reasonable with an idiot. The beginning is commentary from a web mag:
Alain Finkielkraut's interview on Europe 1
A reader has generously given her time to translate for VFR the entire Alain Finkielkraut interview on Europe 1 television with host Jean-Pierre Elkabach that was broadcast on November 25. Though there are many factual contradictions to be resolved in what some are calling L'Affaire Finkielkraut, in this interview (which I haven't had time to read carefully yet) Finkielkraut apparently underwent something like a Stalinist renunciation of his previous statements in order to fend off a suit against himself for "incitement to racial hatred" as well as to protect himself and his family from threats on his life. [That is a misreading of the facts, in that Finkielkraut claims there are two men, one himself, the other a made-up caricature of him. (ed. Dag.)] At the same time he resists the interviewer's politically correct attacks on him and continues to protest the silencing of criticism by means of the racism charge. Yet, just as the conventional left sees the Muslim rioters as victims of discrimination, Finkielkraut, much in the manner of mainstream American conservatives, sees the Muslims as victims of the dominant leftism which prevents them from assimilating, thus subscribing to the illusion that the assimilation of millions of Muslims in Europe (that is, a true assimilation that does not change Europe into something else) is a practical possibility. He ends the interview by saying:
I offer my apologies to those who have been offended by that person who is not me; I do not have within me any feeling of scorn or hatred towards any group whatsoever and I feel, by mission, in solidarity with new immigrants in France, notably those of the second and third generation.Let us remember that this whole controversy was set off by an earlier interview in Ha'aretz in which Finkielkraut made comments that in America would be seen as little more than standard conservative criticisms of affirmative action, the racial double standard, failure of immigrants to assimilate, and so on.
Our translator says:
Some parts aren't clear to me and a few omissions are indicated with (...). It's an interesting document—a man's desperate attempt to tell the truth without telling the truth, the mocking tone of Elkabach, etc.We are indebted to the reader, whose skill in French translation is evident in this and other translations she has done recently for VFR.
I do not know who July is, and I do not understand the notion of having given a "gift" to Dieudonné. Dieudonné, if you don't know, is a vile celebrity—a mix of Farrahkan, Spike Lee and Eldridge Cleaver. His mother is Breton, his father is from Cameroun. It was rumored that Chirac will give him the Légion d'Honneur medal.
Jean-Pierre Elkabach - When a society is in crisis, an intellectual, especially one who is well-known and influential such as yourself, Alain Finkielkraut, is supposed to take the high ground and calm people's minds. Your recent statements to foreign newspapers have been judged unacceptable and are creating and will continue to create a scandal. Alain Finkielkraut, greetings.***
Alain Finkielkraut - Greetings
Elkabach - What got into you?
Finkielkraut - Uh, Jean-Pierre Elkabach, I seek truth, that is how I perceive my work and sometimes to find the truth I attempt, I rip apart, I feel it is my duty to rip apart the curtain of conventional discourse. I do it at the risk of being wrong, and of arousing unquenchable hatred over the small amount of truth that I uncover. But, that is something entirely different. From the puzzle of quotations in "Le Monde," there emerges an odious person, unlikable, twisted, whose hand I would not want to shake. They tell me—and here the nightmare begins—that that person is me, I am being told that I inhabit that fictional body, and that I must answer for it before the court of public opinion. So, I want to defend myself. I want to defend myself, but also, sometimes when things like that happen, you want to die.
Elkabach - Don't exaggerate, you are not naive, you know that you have unleashed a torrent of destruction that is just beginning. What did you say? We're going to take a few statements, at any rate some quotations and you will comment on them yourself. You said, " People would like to reduce the riots...to a social dimension, but most of the rioters are blacks or Arabs with a Muslim identity. It was a revolt of an ethnic and religious nature." Ethnic—that means racial?
Finkielkraut - Listen
Elkabach - You said it.
Finkielkraut - I said it but, Jean-Pierre Elkabach, everybody thinks it's so because to talk about the ethnicity of the rioters is considered a racist attitude. On the other side of the issue, the unanimous reaction to the riots is the denunciation of discrimination against visible minorities. If it were only about a social uprising in one neighborhood, people would have spoken about unemployment ...or the need to modernize the suburbs. They would not have spoken of the struggle against discrimination in hiring or employment. But I do add in the course of the article that one must not make generalizations. If I recognize, like everybody else, the ethnic nature of these revolts, far be it for me to lump together in one shameful category all Frenchmen of African or North African descent; and furthermore let me add that I pity rather than accuse the perpetrators of this great pillage.
Elkabach - Yes. In the riots, what is the role of a certain Islam or of religion since you speak of the "ethnic and religious nature"?
Finkielkraut - OK. On that point no, it is not fair, it is just a vague identity reference. Religion as such is not part of it. It happens that some people in France, especially the young, when speaking of the French, call them "the French," all the while donning a Muslim identity. They are not the only ones who do it. One of the tragedies of our time is the great national disaffiliation. And in the article I say that some Jews can be tempted to do the same thing: France is useful, but Jewishness is their identity. I reproach those Jews for their lack of consideration and I say to them "no," and I say to them, in the interview, be consistent in your logic. If France is simply an insurance company and if your identity is elsewhere...
Elkabach - Yes, but since you said that to the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, that part was censored. Alain Finkielkraut, you say that there are in France those who hate the Republic, that there is an anti-republican pogrom.
Finkielkraut - Yes. In order to remove any Jewish connotation stemming from the word "pogrom," I will say rather that there was a great anti-republican pillage. And I say that our compassionate society suffers from a veritable moral apathy in so far as it cannot perceive the stoning of firemen and the arson of schools as a sacrilegious act. What is our relationship with ourselves and with our schools for us to see that simply as a symptom and to treat the perpetrators as victims?
Elkabach - Who influences these perpetrators?
Finkielkraut - Right, well, I'm going to tell you. It is not a reaction to Sarkozy, it is not political, it is a social climate...
Elkabach - But who?
Finkielkraut - Well, the spiritual void in our society that practices...
Elkabach - Who? The schools?
Finkielkraut - No.
Elkabach - The high schools? You said it.
Finkielkraut - Yes.
Elkabach - The videos, the music...
Finkielkraut - The culture of "now," which has gotten the upper hand over study, over schools where patience and extended efforts are cultivated. Obviously, in a society where everything is based either on utility or instant gratification and consumerism, we create frustrated people who want to grab everything, all at once.
Elkabach - Alain Finkielkraut, agreed. Today, we are trying to understand what you said...
Finkielkraut - Sure...
Elkabach - ...what motivates you. You speak of blacks and Arabs.
Finkielkraut - No.
Elkabach - Yes, yes in the interview, such as it was published in France. They are Frenchmen and you know it. Are we to kick them out, even though they are at home here?
Finkielkraut - No.
Elkabach - When Jacques Chirac calls them sons and daughters of the Republic, is he right or wrong?
Finkielkraut - No. He's right, he's right. But one must make careful note of such extremely violent hatred and not respond to this hatred by saying that we are hateful people...the great difficulty today is to integrate people who do not like France into a France that does not like herself. But integration of course must be our goal and we missed...
Elkabach - All right, but you the philosopher, as July said, you the intellectual, must you respond to hatred with hatred?
Finkielkraut - No. And I do not respond with hatred, I'm just saying that we missed out on an real opportunity to extend our hand to them. It's clear that the perpetrators of this pillage are unstructured individuals. What do I mean by unstructured? That means the loss of points of reference, they don't know good from evil, licit from illicit. We have to establish these points, and affirm them. That would help them.
Elkabach - OK. Let's proceed in trying to understand what you said because your remarks will come back to you. You lash out at Dieudonné. You call him "the spokesman of the theology of hatred, etc..." He is, you say, "the true patron of anti-Semitism." Can you confirm that?
Finkielkraut - What I'm now confirming is that the duty to memory, which everybody talks about, is formed as a result of recriminations such as those of Dieudonné.
Elkabach - But why, why can't you forget about it?
Finkielkraut - Because...
Elkabach - Is that any reason to imitate him and to cultivate—if indeed he cultivates hatred—to cultivate...
Finkielkraut - Jean-Pierre Elkabach, I cultivate no hatred. I repeat that I have no connection to this personage in the puzzle. I, like everybody else, hate that personage.
Elkabach - Which personage? Dieudonné or Finkielkraut?
Finkielkraut - Me!
Elkabach - Finkielkraut.
Finkielkraut - Not Finkielkraut! This fictional person in which ... This tunic of Nessus that I'm forced to inhabit. I'm simply saying that today (...) they say we must heal the identity wounds of Africans and those of African descent.
Elkabach - Rightly or wrongly?
Finkielkraut - Yes. But they are stating it improperly, since they say that to treat these identity wounds is to snatch from the Jews some monopoly or other on misfortune. So, we are forced to discuss colonization (...) and slavery using the Shoah as a model. We do this by sacrificing the truth, and thus we cultivate hatred. A so-called competition of victims...Jean-Pierre Elkabach, I am not a victim, I honor the memory of the victims, I wrote "The Imaginary Jew" to protest all identification with the victims. It's not about...
(Please note—the following paragraph is not clear to me. I just translated the words.)
Elkabach - OK, but today what people read about this personage, don't get upset over the personage that emerges, who is probably not you but who people think is you since you are not naive, you have no need for Jean-Marie Le Pen to be silent since you are doing the work, and furthermore you gave a gift to Dieudonné and all that he represents, in the form of provocative statements...
Finkielkraut - The gift to Dieudonné is precisely to respond to his reproaches and to examine colonization and slavery as he asks us to, and in this way one cannot speak of Black slave trade except for the Atlantic slave trade, one cannot speak of a specific Western presence in the matter of abolitionism. When someone does speak of it, like Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, he is in the same boat as I am. But I'm being accused of something else and I would like to respond. I have spoken, or so people think who read that puzzle about a man who is not me, wantonly and disdainfully about a France that is Black-White-Arab. No! I said that the Marseillaise had been hissed at while France was displaying this fine and great face of a multi-ethnic society. That means that a multi-racial society can also be a multi-racist society. I must add that now France has become Black-Black-Black and that it is the laughing stock of Europe. On that point I want to elaborate.
Elkabach - Yes, yes but you take soccer as an example. I quote, "People keep telling us that the French team is admired because it is Black-White-Arab, but today it is Black-Black-Black which is making all of Europe laugh. It's true that you have only to apply a little affirmative action in the Blue team for the whites to play better, better, or as well as the blacks."
Finkielkraut - They would play less well.
Elkabach - All right, go on.
Finkielkraut - I'm getting to it, I'm getting to it. I merely said, what is this, why this French peculiarity, it's a consequence of colonialism, it's a post-colonial privilege and the laughter I spoke of, I'll tell you what it is. I spoke fearlessly, I thought about my father. My father introduced me to soccer in the fifties, he was born in Poland, he was deported from France, he was an immigrant and I am a second-generation immigrant...
Elkabach - Yes, yes, yes, wait a minute, you often say I was born a Pole in France, a second-generation immigrant. Don't you have a duty, Finkielkraut, to extend your hand and to speak differently!
Finkielkraut - I'm extending my hand to them, I'm extending my hand to them. I'm extending my hand, but first I want to explain. My father saw that the French team was composed of Kissovski, Copa, that is Copachevski, Pieantoni and he use to enjoy saying, "but are there any Frenchmen on this team?" He meant true ethnic Frenchmen, it was an innocent laughter, without meanness that I was trying to echo in this text. I was wrong, I am now stigmatized by this joke. (...) Of course, one must reach out and of course I think of myself as an immigrant also, and what benefits did I have? A tough school that taught me to speak French properly. Today, schools don't do that.
Elkabach - Alain Finkielkraut, Alain Finkielkraut, if next May 10 becomes a day for remembering slavery, will that shock you?
Finkielkraut - No.
Elkabach - Can we say that Africans fought with the French in two world wars and against Nazism: did they not love France? Don't the Africans who defend the French language love France? And would not the young French of African or Mahgrebin descent love France even more if we choose a day to honor their grand-parents?
Finkielkraut - Oh of course! But if it is just a pretext for identifying with the victims in order to evade all responsibility or to become an embittered entitlement-seeker, then no. But I think that France is not loved by anyone in France and that is also a big problem.
Elkabach - Let us not cultivate hatred. This morning, Alain Finkielkraut, what do you say to those Frenchmen of African and Mahgrebin descent who have been wounded and insulted by your remarks?
Finkielkraut - I say that I hate the personage created by this puzzle as much as they and that I would not shake his hand. I tell them that I do not think as he does.
Elkabach - But, they don't give a damn. Now, what do you say to them?
Finkielkraut - I say...
Elkabach - Do you say, " I withdraw a part of my remarks, if not my analysis...
Finkielkraut - Jean-Pierre Elkabach, I cannot do self-criticism of a construction in which I do not recognize myself. What I merely said was that when I speak of colonialism and of the desire of enlightened philosophers to educate the savages, I am not accountable for the term "savage." It is completely alien to me.
Elkabach - But Haaretz said it.
Finkielkraut - Yes...
Elkabach - Can I ask a question that is on everybody's mind? All of these unbelievable remarks, you made them to a foreign newspaper. You say that it is impossible—and I read it in English and in French, not in Hebrew—to speak freely in France, such is the rule of demagoguery. How can you say such a lie?
Finkielkraut - I did not say that one cannot express oneself in France.
Elkabach - It's not just that you are doing it now, but you are on all the TV shows, you write for The Figaro, in...
Finkielkraut - Look at what happens when keeping in mind the dangers of racist generalizations and proclaiming hatred for those who cultivate a French nationalistic point of view, look at what happens. I'm the victim of a lynching anyway.
Elkabach - Let's not over-state things...
Finkielkraut - I'm not sure I'm wrong
Elkabach - But who is responsible if you are first...Let's not over-state this lynching.
Finkielkraut - But you yourself brought it up
Elkabach - No, no, no. Who is responsible? Why did you repeat it a second time since your remarks shocked even those closest to you, and you know it.
Finkielkraut - My remarks only shocked those of my friends who read the puzzle; even if they did not agree those friends who read the article were not shocked. And I beg you to try and understand that I am, despite everything, the victim of a huge misunderstanding, but I must add that the problem in France today concerns a general spiritual void. And the best way to reach out to the rioters is to confront them with their responsibility for these acts; and to consecrate once again, before their eyes, the places of study that they pillaged; to do so for them because the language of the suburbs that they speak with such spitefulness is their worst handicap. We must win back these territories that belong to the Republic and the French language must win out over this other speech, otherwise they will never break out of the suburbs. And I believe that they must break out.
Elkabach - What will you do with regard to Haaretz and the remarks that you do not recognize and which have created this personage of whom you speak. Will you accuse them...
Finkielkraut - No.
Elkabach - ...Since you're going to have MRAP. who's already voicing disapproval, different associations and organizations, perhaps some lawsuits and uh, have you received any threats?
Finkielkraut - Listen, we shall see, they're already asking that I be excluded from France-Culture, see what's happening.
Elkabach - What is the moral and political lesson for Finkielkraut since you have an on-going agenda...
Finkielkraut - The political lesson is that I really must not grant any interviews, especially to newspapers that I do not control, whose translations of my writings I cannot control. The moral lesson is that one must continue, against all obstacles, to face reality because it is an outrageous consolation to take refuge in a compassionate attitude that closely resembles abandoning a person in danger.
Elkabach - OK, that's fine, but you have said no generalizations and yet in a way you are apologizing to those whom you have offended, yes or no?
Finkielkraut - I offer my apologies to those who have been offended by that person who is not me; I do not have within me any feeling of scorn or hatred towards any group whatsoever and I feel, by mission, in solidarity with new immigrants in France, notably those of the second and third generation.
Elkabach - Thank you, Alain Finkielkraut, the real one, heh, for having chosen Europe 1 to explain yourself.
That is the brief review of the affair to date. Further we have a review from New Criterion, the second half of a work we published here Julien Benda. Before Finkielkraut became a celebrity in the press he was known as a thinker. Today he's a lightening rod.
In 1988, the young French philosopher and cultural critic Alain Finkielkraut took up where Benda left off, producing a brief but searching inventory of our contemporary cataclysms. Entitled La Défaite de la pensée  ("The 'Defeat' or 'Undoing' of Thought"), his essay is in part an updated taxonomy of intellectual betrayals. In this sense, the book is a trahison des clercs for the post-Communist world, a world dominated as much by the leveling imperatives of pop culture as by resurgent nationalism and ethnic separatism. Beginning with Benda, Finkielkraut catalogues several prominent strategies that contemporary intellectuals have employed to retreat from the universal. A frequent point of reference is the eighteenth-century German Romantic philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder. "From the beginning, or to be more precise, from the time of Plato until that of Voltaire," he writes, "human diversity had come before the tribunal of universal values; with Herder the eternal values were condemned by the court of diversity."
Finkielkraut focuses especially on Herder's definitively anti-Enlightenment idea of the Volksgeist or "national spirit." Quoting the French historian Ernest Renan, he describes the idea as "the most dangerous explosive of modern times." "Nothing," he writes, "can stop a state that has become prey to the Volksgeist." It is one of Finkielkraut's leitmotifs that today's multiculturalists are in many respects Herder's (generally unwitting) heirs. True, Herder's emphasis on history and language did much to temper the tendency to abstraction that one finds in some expressions of the Enlightenment. In his classic book on the philosophy of the Enlightenment, Ernst Cassirer even remarked that "Herder's achievement is one of the greatest intellectual triumphs of the philosophy of the Enlightenment." Nevertheless, the multiculturalists' obsession with "diversity" and ethnic origins is in many ways a contemporary redaction of Herder's elevation of racial particularism over the universalizing mandate of reason. Finkielkraut opposes this just as the mature Goethe once took issue with Herder's adoration of the Volksgeist. Finkielkraut concedes that we all "relate to a particular tradition" and are "shaped by our national identity." But, unlike the multiculturalists, he soberly insists that "this reality merit[s] some recognition, not idolatry." In Goethe's words, "A generalized tolerance will be best achieved if we leave undisturbed whatever it is which constitutes the special character of particular individuals and peoples, whilst at the same time we retain the conviction that the distinctive worth of anything with true merit lies in its belonging to all humanity."
The Undoing of Thought resembles The Treason of the Intellectuals stylistically as well as thematically. Both books are sometimes breathless congeries of sources and aperçus. And Finkielkraut, like Benda, tends to proceed more by collage than by demonstration. But he does not simply recapitulate Benda's argument. The geography of intellectual betrayal has changed dramatically in the last sixty-odd years. In 1927, intellectuals still had something definite to betray. In today's "postmodernist" world, the terrain is far mushier: the claims of tradition are much attenuated and betrayal is often only a matter of acquiescence. Finkielkraut's distinctive contribution is to have taken the measure of the cultural swamp that surrounds us, to have delineated the links joining the politicization of the intellect and its current forms of debasement.
In the broadest terms, The Undoing of Thought is a brief for the principles of the Enlightenment. Among other things, this means that it is a brief for the idea that mankind is united by a common humanity that transcends ethnic, racial, and sexual divisions. The humanizing "reason" that Enlightenment champions is a universal reason, sharable, in principle, by all. Such ideals have not fared well in the twentieth century: Herder's progeny have labored hard to discredit them. Granted, the belief that there is "Jewish thinking" or "Soviet science" or "Aryan art" is no longer as widespread as it once was. But the dispersal of these particular chimeras has provided no inoculation against kindred fabrications: "African knowledge," "female language," "Eurocentric science": these are among today's talismanic fetishes.
Then, too, one finds a stunning array of anti-Enlightenment phantasmagoria congregated under the banner of "anti-positivism." The idea that history is a "myth," that the truths of science are merely "fictions" dressed up in forbidding clothes, that reason and language are powerless to discover the truth—more, that truth itself is a deceitful ideological construct: these and other absurdities are now part of the standard intellectual diet of Western intellectuals. The Frankfurt School Marxists Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno gave an exemplary but by no means uncharacteristic demonstration of one strain of this brand of anti-rational animus in the mid-1940s. Safely ensconced in Los Angeles, these refugees from Hitler's Reich published an influential essay on the concept of Enlightenment. Among much else, they assured readers that "Enlightenment is totalitarian." Never mind that at that very moment the Nazi war machine— representing what one might be forgiven for calling real totalitarianism —was busy liquidating millions of people in order to fulfill another set of anti-Enlightenment fantasies inspired by devotion to the Volksgeist.
The diatribe that Horkheimer and Adorno mounted against the concept of Enlightenment reminds us of an important peculiarity about the history of Enlightenment: namely, that it is a movement of thought that began as a reaction against tradition and has now emerged as one of tradition's most important safeguards. Historically, the Enlightenment arose as a deeply anti-clerical and, perforce, anti-traditional movement. Its goal, in Kant's famous phrase, was to release man from his "self-imposed immaturity." The chief enemy of Enlightenment was "superstition," an omnibus term that included all manner of religious, philosophical, and moral ideas. But as the sociologist Edward Shils has noted, although the Enlightenment was in important respects "antithetical to tradition" in its origins, its success was due in large part "to the fact that it was promulgated and pursued in a society in which substantive traditions were rather strong." "It was successful against its enemies," Shils notes in his book Tradition (1981),
because the enemies were strong enough to resist its complete victory over them. Living on a soil of substantive traditionality, the ideas of the Enlightenment advanced without undoing themselves. As long as respect for authority on the one side and self-confidence in those exercising authority on the other persisted, the Enlightenment's ideal of emancipation through the exercise of reason went forward. It did not ravage society as it would have done had society lost all legitimacy.It is this mature form of Enlightenment, championing reason but respectful of tradition, that Finkielkraut holds up as an ideal.
What Finkielkraut calls "the undoing of thought" flows from the widespread disintegration of a faith. At the center of that faith is the assumption that the life of thought is "the higher life" and that culture—what the Germans call Bildung—is its end or goal. The process of disintegration has lately become an explicit attack on culture. This is not simply to say that there are many anti-intellectual elements in society: that has always been the case. "Non-thought," in Finkielkraut's phrase, has always co-existed with the life of the mind. The innovation of contemporary culture is to have obliterated the distinction between the two. "It is," he writes, "the first time in European history that non-thought has donned the same label and enjoyed the same status as thought itself, and the first time that those who, in the name of 'high culture,' dare to call this non-thought by its name, are dismissed as racists and reactionaries." The attack is perpetrated not from outside, by uncomprehending barbarians, but chiefly from inside, by a new class of barbarians, the self-made barbarians of the intelligentsia. This is the undoing of thought. This is the new "treason of the intellectuals."
There are many sides to this phenomenon. What Finkielkraut has given us is not a systematic dissection but a kind of pathologist's scrapbook. He reminds us, for example, that the multiculturalists' demand for "diversity" requires the eclipse of the individual in favor of the group. "Their most extraordinary feat," he observes, "is to have put forward as the ultimate individual liberty the unconditional primacy of the collective." Western rationalism and individualism are rejected in the name of a more "authentic" cult.
One example: Finkielkraut quotes a champion of multiculturalism who maintains that "to help immigrants means first of all respecting them for what they are, respecting whatever they aspire to in their national life, in their distinctive culture and in their attachment to their spiritual and religious roots." Would this, Finkielkraut asks, include "respecting" those religious codes which demanded that the barren woman be cast out and the adultress be punished with death? What about those cultures in which the testimony of one man counts for that of two women? In which female circumcision is practiced? In which slavery flourishes? In which mixed marriages are forbidden and polygamy encouraged? Multiculturalism, as Finkielkraut points out, requires that we respect such practices. To criticize them is to be dismissed as "racist" and "ethnocentric." In this secular age, "cultural identity" steps in where the transcendent once was: "Fanaticism is indefensible when it appeals to heaven, but beyond reproach when it is grounded in antiquity and cultural distinctiveness."
To a large extent, the abdication of reason demanded by multiculturalism has been the result of what we might call the subjection of culture to anthropology. Finkielkraut speaks in this context of a "cheerful confusion which raises everyday anthropological practices to the pinnacle of the human race's greatest achievements." This process began in the nineteenth century, but it has been greatly accelerated in our own age. One thinks, for example, of the tireless campaigning of that great anthropological leveler, Claude Lévi-Strauss. Lévi Strauss is assuredly a brilliant writer; but he has also been an extraordinarily baneful influence. Already in the early 1950s, when he was pontificating for UNESCO, he was urging all and sundry to "fight against ranking cultural differences hierarchically." In La Pensée sauvage (1961), he warned against the "false antinomy between logical and prelogical mentality" and was careful in his descriptions of natives to refer to "so-called primitive thought." "So-called" indeed.
In a famous article on race and history, Lévi Strauss maintained that the barbarian was not the opposite of the civilized man but "first of all the man who believes there is such a thing as barbarism." That of course is good to know. It helps one to appreciate Lévi Strauss's claim, in Tristes Tropiques (1955), that the "true purpose of civilization" is to produce "inertia." As one ruminates on the proposition that cultures should not be ranked hierarchically, it is also well to consider what Lévi Strauss coyly refers to as "the positive forms of cannibalism." For Lévi Strauss, cannibalism has been unfairly stigmatized in the "so-called" civilized West. In fact, he explains, cannibalism was "often observed with great discretion, the vital mouthful being made up of a small quantity of organic matter mixed, on occasion, with other forms of food." What, merely a "vital mouthful"? Not to worry! Only an ignoramus who believed that there were important distinctions, qualitative distinctions, between the barbarian and the civilized man could possibly think of objecting.
Of course, the attack on distinctions that Finkielkraut castigates takes place not only among cultures but also within a given culture. Here again, the anthropological imperative has played a major role. "Under the equalizing eye of social science," he writes,
hierarchies are abolished, and all the criteria of taste are exposed as arbitrary. From now on no rigid division separates masterpieces from run-of-the-mill works. The same fundamental structure, the same general and elemental traits are common to the "great" novels (whose excellence will henceforth be demystified by the accompanying quotation marks) and plebian types of narrative activity.
For confirmation of this, one need only glance at the pronouncements of our critics. Whether working in the academy or other cultural institutions, they bring us the same news: there is "no such thing" as intrinsic merit; "quality" is only an ideological construction; aesthetic value is a distillation of social power; etc., etc.
In describing this process of leveling, Finkielkraut distinguishes between those who wish to obliterate distinctions in the name of politics and those who do so out of a kind of narcissism. The multiculturalists wave the standard of radical politics and say (in the words of a nineteenth-century Russian populist slogan that Finkielkraut quotes): "A pair of boots is worth more than Shakespeare." Those whom Finkielkraut calls "postmodernists," waving the standard of radical chic, declare that Shakespeare is no better than the latest fashion—no better, say, than the newest item offered by Calvin Klein. The litany that Finkielkraut recites is familiar:
A comic which combines exciting intrigue and some pretty pictures is just as good as a Nabokov novel. What little Lolitas read is as good as Lolita. An effective publicity slogan counts for as much as a poem by Apollinaire or Francis Ponge. … The footballer and the choreographer, the painter and the couturier, the writer and the ad-man, the musician and the rock-and-roller, are all the same: creators. We must scrap the prejudice which restricts that title to certain people and regards others as sub-cultural.The upshot is not only that Shakespeare is downgraded, but also that the bootmaker is elevated. "It is not just that high culture must be demystified; sport, fashion and leisure now lay claim to high cultural status." A grotesque fantasy? Anyone who thinks so should take a moment to recall the major exhibition called "High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture" that the Museum of Modern Art mounted a few years ago: it might have been called "Krazy Kat Meets Picasso." Few events can have so consummately summed up the corrosive trivialization of culture now perpetrated by those entrusted with preserving it. Among other things, that exhibition demonstrated the extent to which the apotheosis of popular culture undermines the very possibility of appreciating high art on its own terms. When the distinction between culture and entertainment is obliterated, high art is orphaned, exiled from the only context in which its distinctive meaning can manifest itself: Picasso becomes a kind of cartoon. This, more than any elitism or obscurity, is the real threat to culture today. As Hannah Arendt once observed, "there are many great authors of the past who have survived centuries of oblivion and neglect, but it is still an open question whether they will be able to survive an entertaining version of what they have to say."
And this brings us to the question of freedom. Finkielkraut notes that the rhetoric of postmodernism is in some ways similar to the rhetoric of Enlightenment. Both look forward to releasing man from his "self-imposed immaturity." But there is this difference: Enlightenment looks to culture as a repository of values that transcend the self, postmodernism looks to the fleeting desires of the isolated self as the only legitimate source of value. Questions of "lifestyle" (ominous neologism!) come to occupy the place once inhabited by moral convictions and intellectual principles. For the postmodernist, then, "culture is no longer seen as a means of emancipation, but as one of the élitist obstacles to this." The postmodernist regards the products of culture as valuable only to the extent that they are sources of amusement or distraction. In order to realize the freedom that postmodernism promises—freedom understood as the emancipation from values that transcend the self—culture must be transformed into a field of arbitrary "options." "The post-modern individual," Finkielkraut writes, "is a free and easy bundle of fleeting and contingent appetites. He has forgotten that liberty involves more than the ability to change one's chains, and that culture itself is more than a satiated whim."
What Finkielkraut has understood with admirable clarity is that modern attacks on elitism represent not the extension but the destruction of culture. "Democracy," he writes, "once implied access to culture for everybody. From now on it is going to mean everyone's right to the culture of his choice." This may sound marvelous—it is after all the slogan one hears shouted in academic and cultural institutions across the country—but the result is precisely the opposite of what was intended. "'All cultures are equally legitimate and everything is cultural,' is the common cry of affluent society's spoiled children and of the detractors of the West." The irony, alas, is that by removing standards and declaring that "anything goes," one does not get more culture, one gets more and more debased imitations of culture. This fraud is the dirty secret that our cultural commissars refuse to acknowledge.
There is another, perhaps even darker, result of the undoing of thought. The disintegration of faith in reason and common humanity leads not only to a destruction of standards, but also involves a crisis of courage. "A careless indifference to grand causes," Finkielkraut warns, "has its counterpart in abdication in the face of force." As the impassioned proponents of "diversity" meet the postmodern apostles of acquiescence, fanaticism mixes with apathy to challenge the commitment required to preserve freedom. Communism may have been effectively discredited. But "what is dying along with it … is not the totalitarian cast of mind, but the idea of a world common to all men." Julien Benda took his epigraph for La Trahison des clercs from the nineteenth-century French philosopher Charles Renouvier: Le monde souffre du manque de foi en une vérité transcendante: "The world suffers from lack of faith in a transcendent truth." Without some such faith, we are powerless against the depredations of intellectuals who have embraced the nihilism of Callicles as their truth.
The reference to Callicles shows that this problem of moral relativism isn't new: it goes back to Plato's time and beyond. The question is what is to be done in the West today? How are we to combat this evil of moralism-without-morality? If philosophers are silenced by the Left dhimmi fascsits and the Muslims are raised to ruin, then what is left for us?
People are social animals, and they do as others do, right or wrong, for the sake of social peace and good security, even when such security is fatal. Yes, the majority of concentration camp inmates from Poland to Siberia simply conformed to their own impending extermination, what Primo Levi calls the drowning. Peasants in Rwanda died passively at the hands of their fellows. Most people are content to die rather than make a scene. And when the public intellectuals, those who set the agenda of public opinion, are monsters, such as most of ours are today, then we see the crimes of Auschwitz and Rwanda and we shrug. We look at these crimes as ethical connundrums, disturbing but separate from our lives, perhaps meaningful in another's world-view, even understandable if we knew the subtext of the culture. We go along with evil because we are social animals. We believe what people believe. We believe what most people believe publically. We accept public opinion. When public opinion changes, we follow it and believe the next thing, changing our public pose to conform to its requirements. Our opinions come from our public intellectuals. Today, those people are moral idiots. We are a morally stupid culture. This is not new. This will remain with us likely for the duration. We must fight it regardless. We must change the mood of the public till it demands not ethics but morality.
There is no coherent question in "Yes, but what is morality, yours being somehow better than mine?" There is universal morality, not mine or yours, and it is the opinion that there is such that is the battle we must win, not the definition of morality as such. Finkielkraut the man as he is is one man. Finkielkraut the imaginary whipping boy of public opion is something else altogether. We must relearn the difference as a public. For those who cannot they must be postioned in such a way that they will simply strike a moral pose from passivity and conformity. Too bad for the ethicists. We win or we lose. Some things do not change.